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Posted on May 5, 2009 in Books and Movies

The Accidental Guerrilla – Book Review

By Rick Baillergeon

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. David Kilcullen. Oxford University Press, 2009, Hardback, 346 pages. $27.95.

“This book, like its wars, is a hybrid: part field study, part personnel recollection; perhaps too academic to be popular and too populist to be purely academic.”

There seems to be no shortage of self-proclaimed experts in the areas of counterinsurgency (COIN), guerrilla warfare (GW), Al Qa’ida, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In truth, the preponderance of these experts possess little or no credibility in any of these areas. They provide nothing of value to those exposed willingly or unwillingly to their views. Unfortunately, many of these "pundits" have managed to carve out niches in various forms of media.

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There are a select few people who truly speak with influence in the aforementioned subjects. One who has garnered a tremendous reputation is David Kilcullen. In fact, he is considered in several circles to be today’s foremost authority in COIN and GW. That is why, personally, I (and many others) have been anxiously awaiting the release of his first book, The Accidental Guerrilla.

What separates Kilcullen from his contemporaries is the distinctive combination of his experiences—academically, militarily, and to some extent politically—that enable him to view events and circumstances from a unique perspective. He is then able to articulate his analysis to others in a way that is understandable.

He earned a doctorate in politics from New South Wales University; his thesis was entitled, “The Political Consequences of Military Operations in Indonesia 1945–99: A Fieldwork Analysis of the Power-Diffusion Effects of Guerrilla Conflict.” Militarily, he served for twenty-plus years (retiring in 2006) as an infantry officer in the Australian Army. This service included various assignments involved in COIN and guerrilla warfare, with deployments in East Timor, Bougainville, and the Middle East.

Since his retirement from the Australian Army, Kilcullen’s reputation has escalated within the United States and the military community. His numerous COIN-related articles and papers have embraced, particularly by the United States military. It is no coincidence Kilcullen served as the Special Advisor for COIN to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and as General David Petraeus’ COIN advisor. In this role, he was part of the team that planned the "surge." In total, he has a truly impressive resume for the authorship of his first book, The Accidental Guerrilla.

Perhaps, the best and most obvious place to begin a review of Guerrilla is with the title. Although the author covers several distinct areas in detail, they all revolve around his theory of what he calls the accidental guerrilla. Based on field experiences and his extensive research, he believes this is the concept that essentially determines the outcome of any insurgency or counterinsurgency.

Kilcullen defines the accidental guerrilla as “the local fighter … fighting us because we are in his space, not because he wishes to invade ours.” Thus, he stresses a population-centric approach in a COIN operation will set the conditions for members of the population not becoming accidental guerrillas. However, an enemy-centric approach that neglects the population can very well result in the population being swayed by the insurgents, through propaganda and/or intimidation, and the end result of this is the creation of the accidental guerrilla.

This is not revolutionary in COIN doctrine. What is distinctive is Kilcullen’s approach, which articulates the concept in an understandable way and breaks it down into the simplest of terms.

I believe most readers will find Kilcullen’s treatment of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars both extremely valuable and explored in a unique perspective. He is adamant the Iraq War was a serious strategic error; however, he is just as resolute that forces must now stay until the mission is complete. Kilcullen provides his recommendations on how to achieve this mission: the solution must be population-centric not enemy-centric.

He emphatically states, “Enemy-centric approaches that focus on the enemy, assuming that killing insurgents is the key task, rarely succeed. Population-centric approaches, that center on protecting local people and gaining their support, succeed more often” (the accidental guerrilla theory).

I found the most provocative portion of his discussion on Iraq was his assessment on why operations in the country are so challenging. Kilcullen states, “If we were to draw historical analogies, we might say operations in Iraq are like trying to defeat the Viet Cong (insurgency) while simultaneously rebuilding Germany (nation-building following war and dictatorship), keeping peace in the Balkans (communal and sectarian conflict), and defeating the IRA (domestic terrorism). These all have to be done at the same time, in the same place, and changes in one part of the problem significantly affect the others.”

In terms of the future of Afghanistan, Kilcullen is not overly optimistic. He states, “The Afghan campaign is at a strategic crossroads, and may indeed be approaching a tipping point. In my view, the conflict remains winnable, but the overall trend is extremely negative and a concerted long-term effort is needed—lasting 5-10 years at least—if we are to have any chance of building a resilient Afghan state and civil society that can defeat the threat from a resurgent Taliban and an increasingly active sanctuary in Pakistan.”

Despite the pessimistic tone, Kilcullen provides readers with a concise, yet comprehensive strategy on what to do next in Afghanistan. In reference to this strategy he states, “The ideas are not new; implementing them effectively would be.” I would suggest that Kilcullen’s ability to articulate this strategy in a succinct five pages is new. He takes these ideas and is able to dissect them into the elements of politics, security, economic and information in a way that all readers can comprehend.

Readers well-versed in COIN doctrine and principles may not obtain any significant nuggets to add to their understanding of the subject. Other prominent COIN authorities addressed the principles he stresses years earlier. Those who have read David Galula, T.E. Lawrence, Frank Kitson, or Sir Robert Thompson will be quite familiar with these principles. However, Kilcullen’s ability to intertwine analogies and place these principles in a different light will take these knowledgeable readers to the next step in their overall understanding of COIN.

Those who do not possess this level of understanding will also benefit tremendously from The Accidental Guerrilla. Throughout the volume, Kilcullen displays a rare ability to take the complicated and place it in straightforward terms. Nowhere is this displayed better than in the author’s use of two case studies: To highlight how the United States has effectively executed the concept of the accidental guerrilla, he details the Iraqi tribal uprising against Al Qa’ida during the 2007 Surge and the Kunar Afghanistan road construction project in 2008. Each of these studies is superbly crafted and highlights the theory of the accidental guerrilla perfectly.

While there is no question of my complete satisfaction with this book, I should provide some words of caution for prospective readers. First, some may find Kilcullen’s writing in the early stages of the book a bit too academic for them and they may lose interest in the book. This would be a huge mistake, as the author’s style loosens up quickly. Second, readers who like to complete books in one or two sittings will find that nearly impossible with The Accidental Guerrilla. It simply generates far too many reflective opportunities for the reader. I recommend digesting Kilcullen’s information one chapter at a time.

David Kilcullen opens his book with the following statement: “This book, like its wars, is a hybrid: part field study, part personnel recollection; perhaps too academic to be popular and too populist to be purely academic.” I believe Kilcullen has achieved the right blend of populist and academic. The Accidental Guerrilla is a book that will be an invaluable asset to a wide readership. It will greatly assist readers in understanding the past. Just as importantly, it will provide readers with the background they need to understand the events of the future and the role of the accidental guerrilla.

Rick Baillergeon co-authors with John Sutherland the continuing monthly series Tactics 101 for ArmchairGeneral.com.

2 Comments

  1. As Bracevich points out in NATIONAL INTEREST, there is here the sound of an interested party whose career depends on the US trapped in endless COIN ops. Just as carpenters insist we need more nails and boards banged together, the COIN guys insist we need more Cion warfare– for Afghan case alone they want another decade. But let us recall what happened to Vietnam. The VC were doing fine because, as in Iraq/Afghan efforts, career officers depended on being action-Jackson but since it had to be with low casualties, thy prepaired the ops terrain by stralizing it with ordnance, destroying all protein on it.. This led to massive massacre of civilians before our troops went in. In Iraq, “shoxk&awe” reached the point of criminal, given our intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb invasion. Now in Afghanistan we get the benefit of Kilcullen’s once-quick-thru trips and the advice of one year tours from sililarly intel blind, language deaf, culture dumb officers. But the Vietnam lesson is fogotten. There, our “Better War” towards the end almost won because, while in the begininig the VC were fish swimming in a sea of willing peasants, our ordnance mania made them all refugees to the cities, turning South vietnam from 85% rural to 75% urban. There the peasant, according to VC documents, became “petits bourgeois,” with new lives in commerce. This called for a war that, according to Hanoi’s Communist Party history was totally won by DRV regulars because the VC was no more than an “anoyance” to Saigon. What Kilcullen does not deal with is the Muslim unity in the face of his fellow Christian American “Crusades” there. If instead our troops were to play a passive protective role, rather than massacre civilians blindly, USAID could, as did CORDS in South Vietnam, create an urban settings where youth and women could take refuge, slowly draining the rural “sea” (in which swim the Taliban) with industry and commerce. Ditto for Pakistan. But instead we have been feeding corruption blindly as in Iraq. So maybe it would be best to let the Shanghai Accord states that includes all its neighbors, including Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India and Central Asian states, deal with Taliban and we just leave. Taliban did not do 9/11 and will not do the next. Kilcullen&Co will all have to get regular jobs selling door to door or something.

  2. Responding to the review itself, rather than the book (which I have not read). I would like to point out a weakness in current thought among those who claim to “get it” on COIN. Many intelligent, experienced, serious people thinking on the subject have assumed that the insurgent necessarily requires widespread support of the people. That is often times true. But not always. First, one must consider the goals of the insurgent, then the insurgent’s strategy (which is not the same thing as his tactics, though his tactics are driven by his strategy). Some insurgencies can achieve most of their goals by creating a situation that is so utterly intolerable to their opponents that anything would seem preferable to the conditions created by the insurgent. This is why many insurgent groups engage in acts of terrorism – killing innocent people in marketplaces, on buses, or on trains. Such attacks create an intolerable environment in which the people look to their government and demand an end to the attacks. The government is unable to provide that instant cessation of terror attacks by the insurgents because defeating an insurgent organization take time. As a result,the people perceive that government has failed to meet its primary obligation to the governed: Civil security. The failure to provide civil security will eventually destroy the perceived legitimacy of a government and breed additional opposition (“accidental guerrillas”?) to the government. In some cases the insurgent may seek to take power in a coalition overthrow (Iran, 1979), and then eliminate its weaker partners to consolidate power. Such a strategy does not require widespread public support so much as it requires a lack of a unified, determined foe.

    That said, it IS certainly true that the COUNTERinsurgent requires widespread public support. To this end, the counterinsurgent would do well to concentrate on providing civil security – the most basic responsibility of government and deeply linked to legitimacy. However, assuming that popular support is zero-sum and thinking that because the insurgent lacks the support of the people that you, as the counterinsurgent, necessarily have gained it is deadly wrong. This may seem a fine distinction, but it is very important to understand if you want to “get it” at all (I’m not a fan of the “get it” term, but I hear a lot of people using it who generally only “get” about 80 or 90% of “it”).

    To wrap:

    YOU (the counterinsurgent), need the widespead support of the people.

    The BAD GUYS (insurgents), might or might not require that support – it depends on their strategy.

    In either case, know that popular support is NOT zero-sum. Just because you’ve taken from the other guy does NOT mean that you’ve gained it for yourself.

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  1. The Accidental Guerrilla | Book Review - [...] indepth reviews, see  The NY Times, thearmchairgeneral.com, The Economist (below a review of Ricks’ The Gamble), Bacevich’s criticism and …

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